Saving Democracy by Living It: A Democratic Nation Needs A Democratic and Public Education System

How do we save our democracy? Or, how do we create a truly democratic nation? We are learning, now, that too many people in the U. S. either never understood or never cared about democracy. Or they had become complacent and hopefully now realize what they might lose. So, how do we change the state of our government?

 

A democracy is a government of, by, and for the people ⎼all the people. The power rests in the citizens, who exercise that power according to laws and principles set out in a constitution that all know and have access to. Each person must be valued, and each person’s viewpoint heard.

 

To do that, the government needs to foster a sense of community. Caring relationships and a sense of shared humanity must be at the core of the process by which decisions are made. How we live our lives schools us in how to participate, with everyone around us, in the work of running a government together.

 

We need to make political action a normal part of our daily lives.

 

Without this depth of understanding, it is too easy to give up on democracy when it becomes difficult. It is too easy to sacrifice participating in the rewarding but complex process of making decisions with others in exchange for letting someone else do it for us. It is too easy to get so focused on what we think is the only answer that we forget everyone else can also think their answer is the only one. Compromise becomes impossible. Those who differ from us become enemies.

 

It is also important to study history, to understand what happens to the rights and well-being of citizens under other forms of government, like Fascism or Dictatorship, and what happens when a democracy is destroyed.

 

For all these reasons, a democratic nation needs a democratic and public education system. Our schools need to model the quality of relationships we want in society in general. Democracy and forming caring relationships must be at the core of the school curriculum and of how a school functions.

 

A Democratic and Public Education

 

This understanding is at the heart of a book by Dr. Dave Lehman, A Principal’s Notebook: Lessons for Today from a Pioneering Public School. His book describes the educational structure of the Lehman Alternative Community School (LACS) in Ithaca, New York (a school that he founded ⎼ and where I taught for 27 years). It provides a pedagogy of democratic schooling and of relationships—students with peers, students with staff, staff with colleagues, and everyone with the material being taught and the world we live in.

 

Democracy can’t be taught just through research and reasoning, certainly not by testing the memorization of data. It requires experience and practice. It has to be lived.

 

In order to realistically learn how to relate in a caring, cooperative, and educational manner—and make decisions democratically—children need a structure that prioritizes and develops healthy, caring relationships. Especially in today’s world, marred by increasing hatred and divisiveness in our government and anxiety in our children, where young people often spend more time with digital media than they do with breathing beings, this fact has never been clearer.

 

As Dr. Dave describes in his book, at LACS “everyone has a voice, and a vote, from the newest sixth grader to the oldest high schooler, from the most recently hired teaching assistant to the most experienced teacher and the Principal.” Most decisions concerning everyone at the school are made democratically, either by a weekly all-school meeting, or weekly staff meeting. Staff makes most decisions consensually.

 

To help the school function, there are committees that meet twice a week. The committees maintain the school building and recycle. They plan and run meetings, mediate disputes, support LGBTQ and students of color, develop an overview of where the school is in terms of its goals and where it would like to go, to plant and care for trees and flowers, etc.

 

And everyone has their own family group at the school to support them, consisting of one or usually two staff and about 14 students. In this way, a real community is created. Students learn the need to take responsibility for their surroundings and to speak up for what they think is right, while respecting another people’s right to do the same.

 

Courses are sometimes formed at the recommendation of students, or they are structured to meet the interests, needs and questions raised by students. Students choose their courses instead of having all their classes mandated for them. They are assessed not primarily by standardized tests but through projects and demonstrations of skill that they have a part in designing.

 

The school is far from perfect. But it seriously tries to provide a supportive situation so each student, teacher, and administrator can do their best and find themselves in their work.

 

LACS is only one of several democratic public schools in our nation today. In fact, in New York a statewide group, the DemocracyReady NY Coalition, was launched just last February to “secure the right of all New York students to a quality P-12 education that prepares them for civic participation.”

 

A democratic government needs a citizenry that can not only research and think critically about issues and candidates but values caring relationships. It requires not only democracy in schools but of schools, so there is a quality public education open to everyone.

 

We pay an exorbitant price when the central importance of relationships and taking responsibility for one’s learning is lost. Not only the quality of education suffers, but also the community of our nation suffers. The Lehman Alternative Community School and other democratic schools throughout the nation (and world) provide not only a guide and model for developing good schools but for developing a healthy and democratic nation.

 

Of course, democratizing schools is a longer-term strategy. In the short term, we need to vote or impeach T out of office or we the people might lose the chance to democratize anything.

 

**This post has been syndicated by The Good Men Project.

 

An Analysis of the News, Thoughts On A Gloomy Administration, and A Review of My Book

Three different pieces for you:

The first piece is a review of an article giving a detailed history of how a manufactured crisis in education and the undermining of American literacy might have led to the Republican administration. The second is an announcement of one of my blogs being published by the Good Men Project. The third is a link to a review of my book by Dr. Dave Lehman.

 

*Many people have said to me “I don’t understand the avid supporters of this President and his administration and can’t talk with them.” These Republican supporters “do not listen to facts,” and seem to be condoning the undermining of their own freedom, rights, and economic position. Many theories have been brought forth to explain this behavior: the fact of a tribalization of the news, so each group only listens to its own brand of news. The racism, anti-semitism, and misogyny inherent in our culture. Blaming the leftists and liberals for not listening to these people (and daring to have a different perspective). Not speaking the language and mythology of the right wing.

However, there is another interesting viewpoint: Did a long history of politically and economically manufactured crises, both in education and throughout our culture, cause increasing insecurity and illiteracy, and decreasing critical thinking, and thus lead to the new Republican administration?

An article in Salon.com by Henry Giroux raises this issue very cogently. It is called: Manufactured illiteracy and miseducation: A long process of decline led to President Donald Trump. At first, I thought the article was another attack on public education, blaming schools and teachers for the US political crisis. Not so.

Diane Ravitch, in her book Reign of Error, and Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine, first provided me with this analysis. Starting with the Reagan years, public schools have been under attack, sometimes by the Federal government itself, often by private economic interests and the politicians who supported them, certainly in many media. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all of this was later proved untrue. Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor was diminishing. But the A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning of the attack.

Giroux points out how the supposed reform movement led by elements of both major political parties called for “teaching to the test,” increased “accountability” (or decreased flexibility, creativity, and freedom for teachers to meet the individual needs of students), national standardization, corporate-produced tests and lesson plans, and the weakening of unions—all leading to “a frontal assault on the imagination of students” and the attempt to create corporate “pedagogies of repression.” Even in universities, knowledge has been increasingly viewed as a commodity, where the “culture of business” has become “the business of education.” Of course, many teachers are doing their best to fight this deformation of education.

The Republican administration, says Giroux, is now engaged in a frontal attack on thoughtfulness and compassion. Everyone and everything is valued mainly as a commodity and a source of profit. At the same time, Republicans provide their oppressed supporters with the illusion that those who impose “misery and suffering on their lives” are actually their liberators. What blinds them to the reality of their situation is what binds them together. (Newspeak, “consciously to induce unconsciousness,” 1984?)

You might want to read the whole article.

 

*In the gym yesterday, one of the younger men, in his late twenties, turned off CNN on the tv monitors above the elliptical machines and stationary bikes. He said, “I am sick of watching politics.” I understand how the news has become too disturbing for many to watch. But for this man, the news itself was political; facts were opinions or political statements, not statements about what was real…

This blog post was originally published here five weeks ago and was just re-published, in an edited form, by the Good Men Project. Here is a link you can use to read the rest of the piece.

 

*Dr. Dave Lehman, the founding principal of the Lehman Alternative Community School, in Ithaca, N. Y., where I taught for 27 wonderful years, wrote a review of my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. The review was published in the National School Reform Faculty, Connections. Here is a link. (Thank you Dr. Dave.)

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris

**Thank you to Jill Swenson who sent me the Salon.com article.

 

 

Why Not Practice Mindfulness?

I just read a great article on how teaching mindfulness and social-emotional awareness to students improves the atmosphere and learning in a classroom or a whole school. There is also an interesting website (WKCD- What Kids Can Do) that the founding principal of my former school, Dr. Dave Lehman, recommended, which provides student views on how social-emotional learning greatly impacted their lives. I recommend both resources. I also recommend the practice of mindfulness.

 

In discussing “why practice mindfulness” with people, I frequently say, “Why not?” Most people I know sincerely want to do something positive with their lives, want to help their students or fellow workers and friends. So, why not do it?

 

“It’s too hard,” some people say. Or “I don’t have the time. How can I fit it in?” It is difficult to rearrange your schedule. That’s often true. But I also know that the times I doubt myself, feel in emotional pain, get lost in worry and anxiety, can take way too much time. Would it be worth putting five minutes into mindfulness so you spend five minutes less worrying?

 

And five minutes is all you need to get started. After you get up in the morning and stretch, or after you take a shower but before you eat. Or when you get home from work, and need quiet time for your self to let go of or process the events of the day. For five minutes, do nothing but a little mindfulness.

 

Then some people say, “Mindfulness is just a way to forget pain, forget the oppression in the world, to be selfish.” Acting to reduce oppression, inequity, injustice is important work. But what happens if you can’t recognize how hate, fear, or the desire for revenge affects your thinking? Do you want to have people leading a movement who have no insight into what drives them and little ability to control their emotion? Emotion can be a motivator for action, but it needs to be observed with some clarity and focus so your thinking can be clear and focused. When you do compassion practices, you don’t just develop compassion for yourself. You are readied to act for the well-being of others.

 

“I don’t know how to do it. You had a background in meditation; I don’t.” It’s true. I meditated for many years before I used it in classes, or used it regularly in classes. However, how many times do you use a technique at work or in a class that you were taught to use but had little experience with? Or you read about but hadn’t tried more than a few times? So, why not do the same with mindfulness and emotional awareness? The important point with mindfulness is that you practice it on your own, before, during, and after you do it with your students. It’s important that you don’t pretend to be other than who you are. If you are just learning, share that with students. But you need to also open yourself to continuous learning. You take classes. You read books. You find an experienced teacher. And you listen to your students or fellow workers and learn from them how to teach them.

 

You don’t do mindfulness to forget the world. You don’t do mindfulness to improve grade scores or productivity or even to reduce anxiety. You do it just to do it. You do it because of what happens in you when your attention is focused clearly on what you are doing and nothing else. As a result, it just happens to be true that you think more clearly and deeply and you feel better about your abilities. It just so happens that you appreciate your life more.

 

By taking action to change your life, just doing little things, you learn how to take action in other areas. You learn you can act.

 

So, how do you begin? Close your eyes and just feel your breath. Feel the air entering your body. Feel the sensations in your body of taking a breath in, and out. Your body makes slight adjustments with each stage of the breath. Notice those adjustments and changes. How does it feel to breathe in and out? Or open your eyes. Look outside right now. Here, now, it is morning, and raining. When I look at the sky, I see places that look almost black, others gray and hazy. And one place where a little sunlight appears. I see drops of rain strike the window. Each drop, for barely a second, is one with the window, a tiny dome that reflects what’s around it—colors, shapes. Or put your hand on the window and just feel the window—the temperature, the texture, the hardness or softness, how your hand coheres to the window. If its raining at your home like it is at mine, hear the raindrop against the glass. Notice how you feel when you focus intently on the raindrop. How does it feel when you listen to and hear the rain hitting the window or dropping onto the street or the roof of your house?  Just calmly notice what you observe. Then return your attention to your breath.

 

If a thought arises, notice it like you noticed the raindrop, with open interest. Watch it, then move on to the next moment, of rain or whatever. When you do this, rain will no longer be only something to resist, an interference. Instead, it will be something to observe, appreciate and learn from. By doing this, your life will continuously be something to take in and appreciate and learn from.

 

That’s one way to begin.

 

If you’d like more resources, check out my links page and:

Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques To Develop Inner Strength in Children, by Linda Lantieri and Daniel Goleman

A Still Quiet Place: A Mindfulness Program for Teaching Children and Adolescents to Ease Stress and Difficult Emotions, by Amy Saltzman

Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community

Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, by Ira Rabois (Soon to be published.)